China’s retaliation to the escalation from Washington is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, plumes of smoke rise from the consulate’s courtyard.
The Chinese Consulate General in Houston Photo: Adrees Latif/reuters
Tense relations between the United States and China are worsening at an alarming rate. First, Washington accused two Chinese hackers of targeting millions of dollars of U.S. companies’ data on the Covid 19 vaccine search on behalf of the intelligence agency. Just hours later, the U.S. government ordered the Chinese consulate general closed within 72 hours.
Indirectly, there is a connection between the two incidents, as the U.S. State Department justifies its action by accusing Beijing of espionage: "We initiated the closure of the Consulate General in Houston to protect America’s intellectual property and private information." One does not tolerate China’s violations of U.S. sovereignty, he said. Washington did not provide concrete evidence.
The Chinese government, which first made the matter public, expressed outrage. A Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman spoke of a "political provocation" that would have been "unilaterally" initiated by the United States. China’s accusations are far-reaching: Chinese diplomats are said to have been harassed on several occasions. Due to the public stigmatization by the U.S. government, they had also received bomb threats.
It also said the U.S. had repeatedly opened and in some cases confiscated China’s diplomatic mail. Regarding the closure, it said, "China urges the U.S. to immediately reverse its erroneous decision." Otherwise, it said, "legitimate and necessary measures will be taken."
"An eye for an eye" principle
What the Communist Party’s retaliation might look like is obvious. In relation to previous escalations by Trump, President Xi Jinping has namely so far always acted according to the principle of "an eye for an eye" – for example, in the mutual expulsions of correspondents from the respective countries. Observers therefore assume that China will now close a U.S. consulate for its part.
The Chinese newspaper Global Times, which is loyal to the party, immediately asked its readers in an online survey which consulate was most likely to be affected. Two-thirds of those who voted chose the consulate in Hong Kong and Macau. More likely, however, the choice falls on the U.S. consulate in Wuhan. The consulate was evacuated in February in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and has not yet been occupied.
U.S. President Donald Trump is confronting China’s leaders in Cold War fashion, most recently threatening to ban all Communist Party members and their families from entering the country.
Since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, China has established a total of five consulates in the United States; the mission in Houston is one of the oldest. It has a special role to play these days: Texas is one of the states most affected by the Corona pandemic. The Chinese diaspora living there now has to resort to consular services in cities more than 1,000 kilometers away – Los Angeles or Chicago.
That evening, local TV stations reported that plumes of black smoke were rising from the courtyard of the Chinese consulate. According to images, employees had burned piles of files – apparently in order to destroy sensitive data. Firefighters watched the scene impassively. They are not allowed to enter the consulate because it is Chinese territory.